When to Start Your Rookie Quarterback

Mission

I wanted to see what the current behavior was for NFL teams when drafting QBs and then starting those QBs. Which started fastest, which were developed longest, what was the current behavior, and should that behavior change in light of success rates seen?

Methodology

Since we know the NFL is ever evolving, and is becoming more of a passing league even in the last 5 years than it was the 5 years prior, I limited this exercise only to NFL QBs drafted since 2000. I also limited it only to NFL QBs who started over 10 games. There was no desire to look at the total failures, such as 2nd rd picks Brian Brohm, John Beck, Marques Tuiasosopo etc. While a secondary analysis could be run on those players, I set my cut-off at over 10 starts.

This gave us a population of 79 QBs drafted since 2000 with over 10 starts to analyze. I tracked draft round, the game in which they made their first start, passer rating, and more items. The key we will focus on is the first start. If a player is drafted in 2010 but does not make a single start until 2011 (week 1), his first start is his 17th game. If a player starts week 1 of his rookie season, his first start is his 1st game.

Sanity Check

Its always helpful to run your information thru a guy very familiar with the process you’re researching.  In this case, I reached out to Joe Bussell, who goes by the Twitter handle @NFLosophy.  Joe worked for years inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers organization as part of their front office, and is a very astute mind into the NFL.  I’ve found his thinking to be progressive, like my own, and he values many of the things I value (but which seem to be less popular positions in today’s high-volume, fantasy-football NFL culture), like the importance of coaching and the game changing influence of play calling, along with the critical value of draft picks, among many other things.  So I bounced this research off of him.  He provided some enlightening commentary on the subject, which I’ll share throughout the article.

Findings by Year

We notice a few things.

First, the distinct trend of the NFL starting quarterbacks getting their first start earlier and earlier into their career. Routinely, ~13 QBs are drafted annually (no fewer than 11 have been drafted in any draft since 2000).

We see an avg of 6 QBs/yr (with 10+ career starts) were taken in the first 4 years of this analysis (2000-2003), and 5 QBs/yr taken in the last 4 years (2011-2014).

– From 2000-03, drafted quarterbacks saw their first start come in their 19th game (19.5 to be exact, which is between the 3rd and 4th game of their 2nd season)

– From 2011-14, drafted quarterbacks saw their first start come before their 5th game (4.7) of their rookie season.

That is a HUGE shift.

Second, we’re seeing pretty consistent results in terms of total numbers drafted. In the 15 year sample, we’ve seen an avg of 5 QBs/year see careers with over 10 NFL starts. The numbers for 2013 and 2014 will naturally grow over the next few years, but the numbers from the early phase will remain the same. We’re working with a set number of teams, so there is a limit to how many new QBs can start games. But overall this tends to show that we are certainly not in the midst of a QB “era” where lots of great prospects are pouring into the NFL, forcing teams to start the less expensive and better option.

Findings by Round (by Year)

While studying the findings by year is beneficial, its even more helpful to study them by draft round. Naturally a QB drafted in the 1st round should be a better prospect, and should be expected to start earlier (and more successfully) than QBs drafted at the end of the draft.

There are several interesting takeaways from this analysis:

First notice how since 2008, only ONE QB was drafted after the 3rd round who actually has started over 10 games in his career. That number is simply remarkable. We’re talking 7 years of drafts and 50 quarterbacks selected in rounds 4, 5, 6 and 7 over that span. And the only one to start over 10 games was John Skelton. (Perhaps Zach Mettenberger joins that group in 2015). This speaks to a different argument but one mentioned above, and that was we’re just not seeing very good talent from QBs lately. The few good prospects we’re seeing are getting scooped up in the first couple rounds.

When I mentioned this to Joe, he immediately noted “the reason for this phenomenon (later-round draft picks not getting as many starts recently) is due to the rise of the veteran backup quarterback in today’s NFL.  Unlike year’s past, where younger players had more shots at playing time when a starter was injured, now we see veteran QBs take those opportunities, impeding young talent from getting a crack.”

Second, and even more important for our analysis, relates to those QBs who are drafted early:

For quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the draft over the last 4 years, we’ve seen them average their first start before their 4th game (3.7 games). If you limit to the last 3 years, it’s before their 2nd game (1.9 games is their average first start).

Compare that to the span from 2000 to 2007, which saw 21 first round QBs average their first start in their 14th game!   Which was after most of their first season has passed by, whereas now it’s an average of the 2nd game of the year.

This is simply massive!  Envision it like this:

Most college teams play around 12-13 games in their season.  Historically, most 1st round NFL quarterbacks essentially were able to sit on the bench for what felt (to them as NFL rookies) like a full, extra football season, where they could simply develop and learning without game pressure/stress, before making their first start.

Now, these players are expected to start after watching just 1 NFL game from the bench.  Its hard to put into words that massive difference, my sense is the only person who really would be able to adequately describe it would be a rookie NFL quarterback.

“I think this trend aligns very closely w/ head coach job security”, Joe noted. “Head coaches seem to have less time to develop players so they are playing into that trend by playing younger guys earlier when maybe they should be sitting them for a few more games. There’s a saying to college players coming to the NFL: ‘Everyone just got better except you’.”

As Joe said, the competition is instantly better in the NFL.  So playing a rookie QB in his true week 1, without that time to learn on the bench, means they must face those better players immediately.  Whereas if they had 14+ games to develop, they could be improving constantly over that time, so that the gap would not be as intense or overwhelming by the time they have their first start.

Findings by Passer Rating

I took the 79 players and looked at their career passer rating. There are a number of other metrics we could analyze in the future, but this one was pretty obvious. What we see is a downward trend in passer rating with when a QB takes his first start in the NFL. While there are two QBs in the 50-60 range that appear to throw this off at the tail end (Ken Dorsey and Mike McMahon) the fact that there are only 2 guys in that group, whereas the majority of groups has 10-30 players shows that the top group (1 player in the 100-110 range – Aaron Rodgers) and the bottom group (with 2 players in the 50-60 range) is not nearly as relevant to the findings.

But it certainly seems that there is some type of pattern here. That said, the correlation is not strong enough to prove it exists, although its going to typically be difficult to find strong correlation with a small sample and so many other factors that affect when a player starts, when he is drafted and how productive of a career he will have.

Below I’ve listed all QBs by name so you can see when they got their first start and how productive of a career they had.

Findings by Players Who Started in the First Month of their Rookie Season

Whether a player starts week 1 or week 2, 3 or 4, those are all early starts in a player’s career. While that’s becoming the norm for the quarterback position, particularly high draft picks, it is interesting to look at the results from players who got their first start within the first month of their career:

We can clearly see that for those QBs who started early but were not first round draft picks, the results were typically not strong. These included Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Weinke, Jimmy Clausen, Trent Edwards, Derek Carr and Quincy Carter. Geno Smith and Mike Glennon fit into this group, but their careers are likely still too young to write them off but it’s certainly a possibility. Kyle Orton never had a prolific career passing, but did some good things on certain teams in his career. The two lone anomalies would be Russell Wilson and Andy Dalton, as players who started early but were not first round picks who are having a good career thus far.

But for every young first round draft pick who started early with success (like Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Mathew Stafford) we see countless players who were not developed early enough who flamed out, like Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Boller, Brandon Weeden, Joey Harrington, etc. There really is no striking data here to say that, had these bad QBs been given more time to develop, they could have done better. It speaks more obviously to lack of talent and missing in the draft room.

So simply looking at only QBs who started early, we see no distinct pattern or “guide” to follow. Some guys hit it off well, others bombed terribly. The only advice to take in this section is that in general, if a QB has fallen out of the first round, there is a reason, and its wise to develop that player rather than thrust him into the starting line-up in the infancy of his career.

More on Passer Ratings

I dug deeper into passer ratings. The methodology was a bit different, because I wanted to measure for consistency. So I put the following additional filters on the data:

I isolated 2 groups of QBs:

1. QBs who got their first start within the first month of their rookie year (game 1 up to game 4), or

2. QBs who skipped the first 10 games and started after that, most often it was the 17th game (year 2, game 1).

The quarterback had to start at least 5 games in his first 4 years to count toward the analysis, to limit players who clearly fizzled after a year or two.

QBs who played their rookie season within 4 games of the start of the year saw their passer rating their rookie year 5+ points lower than their year 2-4 average. This is to be expected.

Also probably unsurprising, the players who were held out and groomed saw their passer rating significantly higher in their first year of action than those who started their rookie season.  And, their first year’s passer rating was much closer to their year 2-4 average.  Which is good to note.  Because it indicates that the player is closer to reaching their full potential when they first come under center, and are better equipped to handle their responsibilities.

In fact, the passer rating avg for this group in year 1 was identical to that of year 2, meaning the NFL “learning curve” was absorbed while watching from the bench and via reps/development.  As Joe mentioned the saying for NFL rookies “everyone just got better except you”, but there apparently practice reps and development may do more for a QB than originally assumed.

Because the prevailing assumption is you have to start and play to get better, particularly with the scaled back practices of today’s NFL.  But if that were the case for these QBs, we should see a developmental boulder in front of QBs, such that with game playing time, they begin improvement, but not before.  Which should mean that the players who sat for 1 year should start with similar passer ratings and then should improve in year 2, just like the rookie players.  But as the numbers show, it’s not the case.

Take the following two groups of 1st or 2nd round draft picks as further evidence:

Group A sat the entire first year, and started a minimum of 5 games each of years 1 and 2.

– Their passer rating their first year of playing time was 83.

– Their passer rating their second year was 85.

– Included in this group were Chad Henne, Colin Kaepernick, Drew Brees, Chad Pennington, Aaron Rodgers, Jason Campbell, Jake Locker, J.P. Losman, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.

Group B played in their first year, and like group A, started a minimum of 5 games each of years 1 and 2.

– Group B’s passer rating their 1st year of playing time was 72.

– Their passer rating their second year was 79.

– Included in this group were Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, Brandon Weeden, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Sam Bradford, Ben Roethlisberger, Mark Sanchez, Robert Griffin, Blaine Gabbert, Alex Smith, Eli Manning, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, Geno Smith and a handful of others (26 in total).

As we can see, the first group who sat saw a significantly better passer rating their first year, and significantly less movement between year 1 and year 2.

Team Win Rates

So if it could be better for the quarterback to sit for a while and to spend time in the system, developing, then the only reason to insert them immediately is to win games now.  Perhaps both for the coach and the franchise. But is “winning now” really that likely?

For this analysis, I isolated only round 1 or 2 draft picks, as that’s really who is targeted to potentially start week 1 or at some point in their rookie season. I measured the team’s win rate before the QB started, and the rates his team won games he personally started (not other QB starts mixed in) in his years 1, 2, 3 and 4.

For QBs drafted in the first 2 rounds who did start in their rookie season, they took teams who had won an avg 35% of their games the prior year, and improved it to 48% in their rookie campaign, a 13% improvement. But that rate tailed off tremendously, as their “sophomore slump” season (year 2) saw a 50% win rate, which was followed by 53% in year 3 and 50% in year 4. So overall, we’re not even talking close to ~55% for most years on average for these teams, which is generally the threshold for the playoffs.

On the other hand, for QBs drafted in the first 2 rounds who did not start until their second year or later, they took teams who won 60% of their games the prior year and dropped down to 51% the year they got their first start. This isn’t surprising, considering one reason they sat was likely due to an adequate incumbent, but one who might be on his way out due to age, contract or other factors, prompting a 1st or 2nd round pick to be used on a quarterback.  After that, however, the improvement began: 57% year 2, 54% year 3 and 57% year 4. That’s 3 years of winning records, and 3 years with an avg rate of 56% wins.  And that means playoff contention each year.

So to the question that is always posed:  Start or sit the rookie QB?  With very limited sample sizes, its evident that teams improve their win rate immediately by starting a high draft pick as a rookie.  BUT, they don’t become winning teams that first year. They still average sub-.500 records. Nor do they win in year two, as they are still averaging .500 records.  Over time, (in part due to the QB’s lack of rep/development leading to lower passer rating, etc)  QBs who started in their rookie year amassed a combined 535-519 (50.8%) record their first 4 years.

Good teams who drafted a QB early and had the luxury of letting him sit his rookie campaign and learn/develop did see a bump downward in win percentage in that first year, but they still produced a winning record.  But they amassed a combined 234-195 (54.5%) record their first 4 years.

And as the earlier analysis showed, with that added development, these QBs had better passer ratings, which (in part) led to better winning records in years 2, 3 and 4 than any of the young guns who started as a rookie.

The point with this analysis was not to prove that sitting QBs in their first year will lead them to wins in years 2-4.  It was more to look at QBs who start in their rookie year on bad teams, to see how quickly (if at all) they turn those teams into winners, which is what ownership looks for when forcing a young QB into the starting lineup early.

You could even take this a step further, and suggest that some of the quarterbacks who won early did so to their own detriment (and the long term detriment of the team).  This is because many coaches will take a young QB and bring over a lot of what they did at college to keep them comfortable and successful initially in the NFL.  A perfect example of this is Robert Griffin III.  When suggested that Griffen entered the NFL with training wheels to help him, Joe had this take:

RG3 didn’t have training wheels. That was an entire offense catered to help him succeed, but didn’t allow him to develop. RG3 went from Big Wheel offense in NCAA to a Big Wheel offense under Shanny. No surprise he crashed when Gruden put him on a bike.

The point here is well illustrated.  Just because a player sees success as a rookie, like Griffin did (as he won 10 games and went to the playoffs his rookie year) does not mean its in his best interest long term, nor the team’s, to start early with restrictions.  First of all, opponents will adjust for that tremendously after year 1, so the fact the the Redskins unique style of offense sputtered tremendously in year 2 and forced a change in head coach is not shocking.  Second, Robert Griffin III in 2014 under Gruden was not your average 3rd year QB.  He was now asked to lead a more traditional NFL offense, which would not be a problem for most QBs.  Hell, even Andy Dalton was very successful in Gruden’s offense with the Bengals.  But because Griffin had never been asked to ride a bike before, he couldn’t even ride one with training wheels very well.

Final Thoughts

Even though this analysis studied the 79 QBs drafted since 2000 (15 years worth) with over 10 starts in the NFL, it still seemed like a small sample size. Particularly when we start looking at early picks or late picks or those with a certain threshold of starts per year. And that’s part of the intrigue with the quarterback position. It’s so vital to winning games, but there is so much involved in the selection of the player, the development of the player, and the implementation of that player into an offense which is truly unique to his situation. Thus, it becomes very difficult to compare or make definitive statements, even after thoroughly researching and analyzing the 15 most recent years.

The trends exist but are too far below the acceptable threshold to consider them to be reliable with any high degree of certainty.  So as the saying goes, take this with a grain of salt.

But what this analysis showed was:

– More and more often, QBs are being thrust into the starting lineup faster and faster, younger and younger.

– But starting a high draft pick QB as a rookie generally led to a lower passer rating from him and worse win percentage in years 1, 2 and onward as compared to the QBs who are given the chance to develop and learn from the sideline.

– Pressure from the ownership to “play the new QB to win now” is actually a misnomer.   They may win more than they won last year, but they still end up leading the team to sub-.500 records their rookie year and .500 their second year.  They rarely “win now”.

– Exceptions to that the past 15 years include only the following 1st / 2nd round-drafted QBs who: a) won over 8 games their rookie season and b) have become consistent starters (5+ starts/yr in yrs 1-3+) for several years:

 1. Ben Roethlisberger

 2. Matt Ryan

 3. Joe Flacco

 4. Andy Dalton

 5. Andrew Luck

 6. Robert Griffin (as we know, while Griffin qualifies by the outlined terms, he’s gone downhill in a major way since his rookie campaign)

– That’s a VERY short list considering we’re talking 15 years of data.

– The list of QBs forced into early action, who started off with losing records yet retained starting jobs for several years, is a longer list.

– And of course, even longer is the list of QBs drafted early (51 total were drafted in the first 2 rounds with 10+ total starts since 2000) who were forced into early action and then struggled so badly they washed out of the NFL or skirted around as backups.

– If QBs are not selected early, they generally have no shot anymore.  With all the focus on scouting and measurables, rarely are 6th rounders like Tom Brady found in the modern passing era of the NFL.

With the salaries that veteran QBs are making these days, its vital to be active in the QB drafting market.  The last 5 Super Bowl winning QBs have an avg salary of only $9.5 M, and an avg cap hit of only $8.8 M.  That’s up from the $7.5 M avg and $6.9 M cap hit over the last 15 years.

What this tells us is its very hard for a TEAM to win a Super Bowl in today’s NFL when allocating so much money to the starting QB, and most QBs who are making top dollar are not able to lead their talent depleted teams to the ring.  (The NFL is constantly raising the salary cap, so that should help and it would not shock me to see a higher paid QB win it in the next couple of years.)

Thus, drafting young, talented quarterbacks is the road to success.  But equally as important as drafting the right one, is understanding when and how to begin playing him.  Based on what this analysis has shown, avoiding the pressure that inevitably comes from fans and media to throw the young QB to the wolves early in his rookie season would be ideal.  Instead of focusing on the ~5 QBs where it worked out, instead consider (since 2000):

– 37 QBs were drafted in the first 2 rounds of the NFL draft and started games in their rookie season.

– Six won 9+ games their rookie season (as mentioned above).

– The other 31 had a combined rookie record of 112-203 (35.5%).

– They were given more of a shot their second year, but still recorded a poor 47% record in more (323) starts.

– After two years of sub-par results, most were slowly phased out.

– By year 4, those 31 players only had 179 combined starts, down over 45% from the 323 games they started in year 2.

– Even after weeding the worst of the bunch out of the NFL, the record for those still QBs who still found themselves earning starts in year 4 was 48%.

There’s no wrong answer in terms of blame.  It could be the front office and that these players just weren’t talented enough to be drafted in the first two rounds.  It could be injuries or pressure and the players just couldn’t hold up.  Or it could be the lack of proper development and time spent preparing the players properly.

But the bottom line is this.  A quarterback is arguably the most valuable single asset on the playing field at any time.  Spending a 1st round or 2nd round draft pick to select one is a significant use of draft capital.  Putting a player out there who is not properly prepared, and potentially derailing his career as a result of mismanagement is a significant destruction of not only the valuable draft commodity (the pick) but also will derail a team’s hopes for winning games.  And eventually, this all comes back to fall on the shoulders of the GM, coaches and other front office personnel.  So getting it right, for the franchise’s sake, is vital.

When I shared the findings with Joe, I anticipated the results would not surprise him, because I’ve seen him discuss bits and pieces of his philosophy on the importance of young quarterback development.  “The data tells me what I already felt, and that is that quarterback play has trended down with less time to sit and develop recently.  Maybe its the lack of supply of good talent to blame.  But if that were the case, why aren’t teams being more cautious with players who clearly need more development?  It’s like they have it backwards.”

When the topic shifted to a very timely discussion of draft picks, Joe’s point of view aligned exactly with my own on the importance of draft picks (which I detailed through another deep analysis here).

“While the rookie wage scale makes a miss on an early pick less financially detrimental to a team, it still hurts”, he said. “It’s a broken foot instead of a broken leg.  But a top 5 pick or even a top 10 pick is a major investment. I don’t understand why teams don’t treat those picks like they’re an investment and protect them as such. They should do everything they can to ensure those picks are developed and put in a position to succeed and err on the side of caution instead of gambling with that investment and starting him before he’s ready.”

Joe understands that so much goes into winning in the NFL.  Its not easy, and he saw it first hand with the Buccaneers.  Its not just how you acquire players via the draft, free agency, trades or undrafted signings.  Its not just how you employ coaches, coordinators and call plays.  Its not just how you execute and perform on game day.  Its all of those things combined, plus the highly underrated aspect of player improvement and development.  Its understanding that the culture of immediacy can be a big impediment at times.  Every situation can and should be treated uniquely, but far too often it seems teams don’t understand the potential consequences of their decisions.  Particularly when it comes to the most expensive and fragile commodity they will ever draft:  an early-round rookie quarterback.

2015 Draft Class

This study was not undertaken solely to look at the 2015 draft class, but since the draft just ended, we might as well address it.  First and foremost, we only had 2 QBs drafted before round 3.  We only had 7 drafted in the entire class.  This really speaks to a topic mentioned earlier about lack of NFL talent at this position, which is a concern.  But as Joe suggested, as a result of less talent, we should see even more patience being exercised with the younger players to help elongate their careers and max potential by developing them correctly.

We saw two QBs drafted in round 1 who are going to be pressured to start immediately:  Jameis Winson and Marcus Mariota.  Each team has a lower selected, young prospect from a prior draft year to compete with in camp (Mike Glennon for the Bucs and Zach Mettenberger for the Titans).  Both were able to showcase their talent in the starting roles last year, but clearly ownership and coaching did not want to pass up the potential franchise QB in Winston or Mariota.  One reason Mariota was not selected first overall was that it was said Winston was the more “NFL-ready” prospect.  Former QB turned ESPN Analyst Trent Dilfer had this to say about Mariota:

I personally don’t think Marcus is a pro-ready quarterback.  I don’t think he’s a guy that can play right away. I think he’s a guy that has to sit for a year or two, learn an NFL system.  He’s a phenomenal talent. He’s a great kid. But he’s not ready to play in a traditional system.

We shall see how the Titans treat Mariota this spring and fall, because the pressure to start him will be high, but developing him and integrating him at the right time is what really is most important to his and the Titans long term interests.

We also saw good QBs drafted to sit behind some quality QBs and learn, like Brett Hundley in Green Bay and Garrett Grayson in New Orleans.  There is absolutely no pressure on these guys initially, and they can sit and develop behind two of the best passers in the NFL.  Bryce Petty was drafted by the Jets, and is the 3rd string QB behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith.  Though neither is a QB like Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees (see above), Petty will start off on the bench and develop but could see a starting opportunity quicker. In St. Louis, Sean Mannion will sit at the bottom of the depth chart behind Nick Foles, Austin Davis and (for now) Case Keenum.  Clearly Mannion could move above of many of those names, but Foles was the offseason acquisition and will be the 2015 starter.

It seems that, due to proper planning, most of the 2015 NFL QB draft class will have plenty of opportunity to develop on the bench, which is vital to their longer term success.  But the first two picks are in totally different circumstances.  Without a proven (or even semi-proven) veteran ahead of them, there is nothing to stop their head coach from starting them week 1, except common sense.  Fortunately for both, they don’t have to make the final decision in May.  They have 4 months before they need to trot a QB on the field to take their team’s first offensive snap of the 2015 season.  They will evaluate their rookie QB and either determine he’s not yet ready, and allow him to develop longer for 1+ weeks on the bench, or they will insert him immediately with (likely) some type of scaled down playbook. Either way, there are many interesting factors to consider, such as player success, player improvement, and team improvement from a wins and losses standpoint.  All were addressed in great detail above.  But with so many unique factors playing into each situation, it will be fascinating to watch it unfold for both Winston and Mariota and their coaches in 2015.

 

Written by Clay Travis

OutKick founder, host and author. He's presently banned from appearing on both CNN and ESPN because he’s too honest for both.